Summer language programmes can often sound more like long holidays than study trips. Glossy brochures highlight visits to London theatres, the Great Wall, the Swiss Alps or Niagara Falls, and describe schedules heavier on sports or shopping than classroom study. But proponents say there is value in a relaxed, informal experience of language learning. Students might not master English grammar or Chinese writing in a stay of two or three weeks, but they can gain confidence - which may motivate them when they return to Hong Kong, said Dr Peter Storey, head of the Hong Kong Institute of Education's Centre for Language in Education. 'With the lengths of these courses, you won't see great gains in language proficiency, but you will see gains in attitudes. They are immersed in the language, they enjoy themselves and they see the language being used for communication, so they have better motivation for studying it when they come back,' he said. Independent boarding schools, language schools, dedicated American-style camps and even universities are the major providers. This summer Hong Kong children will head to a vast array of locations across Europe, North America and Australasia, as well as the mainland and the Thai island of Phuket, to hone language skills and build characters. Dozens of summer language programmes are being offered, either directly through schools or through agents such as the British Council, and it can be a daunting task to sift through them. But there are some tips that parents can follow, according to educators. Firstly, they should have realistic expectations. Students are unlikely to become fluent in any language after a few weeks in a summer programme. Rather, the experience will enhance what they have learned during the school year, according to Jenny Murdoch, education officer with the British Council. 'They get more practise in that particular culture and they become relaxed and confident,' she said. Students at or near an intermediate level tended to derive more benefit than beginners because they had a grounding in the language and were better able to start using it, Dr Storey said. The opportunity to speak English or Putonghua was especially useful for local students because large class sizes in school meant they had little or no opportunity for conversation in the new language. 'If they are just at the beginner level, they are better off staying in Hong Kong and taking classes,' he said. Bill Condon, chief executive of MBC - which markets language programmes in Europe, North America, Australasia and the mainland through its Web site liuxue51.com - suggested that if parents expected children to be in classrooms all day, they should not send them to camps, which were also supposed to be fun. Most of the camps his company markets are run by independent boarding schools or their equivalent, usually offering classroom lessons in the morning and activities in the afternoon such as sports, computer studies, shopping trips and sight-seeing. The afternoons helped to reinforce the classroom learning and made it more enjoyable, he said. Ideally, camps should have a mix of nationalities so that the only common language was the one to be learnt, forcing students to use it to talk to their new friends, he advised. 'We're trying to use the whole cultural experience to encourage them to participate and speak the language.' There were benefits other than improving language proficiency, he added. Some parents wanted their children to make friends in other countries and sent them to the same camp year after year to renew friendships. Some sent children to camps run by boarding schools to give them a chance to sample its lifestyle and school culture before making a final decision to join the school. 'Many parents want their children to study overseas, but they may be too young to start,' said Angie Ma Bun-chee, marketing manager for the Hong Kong Institute of Languages. 'They send them on summer programmes to see if the children are really interested.' Dr Gary Morrison, head of International Education Services at the Yew Chung Education Foundation - which offers Putonghua programmes in Shanghai and English programmes in England, Scotland, Switzerland and the United States - recommends that students planning to apply to overseas universities should attend summer camps to help improve their English. 'The objective is to get them to use the language. We want it to be a real living language for them,' he said. Yew Chung tried to balance academic, cultural and outdoor activities in the programmes it chose, said Dr Morrison. At junior level, the emphasis was on speaking, listening, and comprehension skills, while senior students focused more on writing in styles expected at overseas universities. In Scotland, students are offered a boarding school experience at Gordonstoun School, mixing with students and alumni of the school who return for the summer to provide language immersion for foreign students. The three-week programme, which costs GBP2,750 (HK$31,000) excluding airfare, ends with a four-day sailing adventure to Scotland's Western Isles. 'All activities are designed to be confidence-building,' said Dr Morrison. In contrast, the University of Massachusetts programme enables students to enrol in pre-university courses and prepare for SAT and TEFL exams. Closer to home, children aged nine to 14 have the options of either English language or sports and adventure camps at Dulwich International College's boarding school campus on Phuket. 'Both programmes aim to generate self-confidence, new friendships and the enjoyment of developing new skills,' said Graham Dewey, the college's marketing director. But language and a good experience are not the only criteria for selecting a summer programme. Children's safety and care has to be taken into account. Parents should check that camps are accredited by relevant agencies in their countries, and that those in charge are fully qualified. 'There is always an element of risk with adventure activities,' said Mr Condon. 'Parents can make sure that the levels of tuition and supervision are the best so that risks are minimised - the difficulty arises when organisations cut corners to save costs.' He recommends that parents insist on being put in touch with those who have been at the camps in previous years, to hear first hand of the quality of the facilities, tuition and activities. Kerry Valentine, the head of the English language section of ESF Educational Services, has organised language camps in the past. Although some programmes accepted children as young as seven, she recommended nine as the earliest age. She also suggested that parents should find out whether someone would accompany their child on planes, look after their money, travel documents and other personal belongings during their time away and provide emotional support. 'For a lot of children it's their first time away from home,' she said. 'Parents should think about what experience they want for their children and whether the company has thought about care for them.'